Spirituality of the Record Store

When I was younger I worked exactly one block from my favorite local CD store. It was a dangerous time for my bank account. This was the first time in my life I made enough money to feel I had real, honest to goodness “disposable” income. My CD collection ballooned. I regularly checked the bins, where used & new alike were co-mingled, for cheap copies of albums by Jackson Browne, AC/DC, Keith Jarrett, Lip Zipman,¬† Brad Mehldau, which I did not yet own. The soundtrack to that part of my life was a complex mixture of the recent arrivals in the used rock, jazz, and classical bins.

After my father died I found I could not listen to music with lyrics. I found myself on an almost daily basis rummaging through the classical section. It was during this time that I first spent many hours with the Schubert lieder, the Chopin etudes, Debussy’s music for two pianos, and a host of other areas of the canon which I had not yet explored. One lucky week I was the beneficiary of an unknown lost soul who’d felt it necessary to sell his complete collection of Schubert piano sonatas as recorded by Andras Schiff. Another week I, for similar reasons, found myself the owner of a large number of the Mozart piano concertos as recorded by Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra. These recordings became the soundtrack of my grief. When I broke down in tears while stuck in traffic I could rely on Emmanuel Ax and Yo Yo Ma to get me home. I spent hours laying on my folded up futon listening to cadenzas which seemed the only way out of a very dark place.

The record store has always been a place where I search for meaning. In my mid and late twenties I spent hours walking up and down aisles, making on-the-spot calls to a friend for a quick check of the Penguin Guide, looking for a recording or artist which I felt would surely answer all my questions about life. There were long periods where I would not go into record stores because I felt confident that I had found my own niche in music, the best style for me to play and through which to experience life. Those periods of confidence always ebbed away, and without warning I would find myself traversing the familiar grimy carpet looking for… something. Read the rest of this entry »

Hysteria

In the past few days I’ve been trying to think of the exact moment I became a Def Leppard fan. Now I’m not talking some guy who sings along to “Pour Some Sugar On Me” when it comes on at the bar… I was that guy. I’m not talking someone who owned Pyromania and Hysteria on tape back in 198x… I too young to be that guy. I’m talking¬†fan. I’m talking, three shows in a year in a half. I’m talking tour t-shirts at full price. I can readily identify the moment I became an AC/DC fan. I’ve been a Beatles fan since November 17, 1990. But this Def Lep thing is a recent occurrence.

It could have been when Mirrorball was released. I bought it the first day it was in stores. My buddy and I went to Wal*Mart and I got the CD and a great picture of me under a sign advertising $49 green peppers. But what made me want to buy Mirrorball? Some sort of ironic loyalty to 80s hair metal? This seems unlikely, although perhaps it was a fit of irony inspired nostalgia. Now that I think about it, this was the same summer I bought two live Scorpions albums and the live Poison record. Perhaps it was part of Live Album Summer… but I really cannot remember. Perhaps I destroyed those brain cells with all the beer I drank at the show I went to last August.

My fandom has recently taken on a new height. It is a height previously unattained in my musical life. I have bought a ticket to hear Def Lep play live at the Hard Rock in Vegas. This required me to purchase airplane tickets. I’m a good $250 invested in this experience and I haven’t even left yet. In 2002 I swore I’d never pay more money for a show than I did that year for Paul McCartney. It seems that stand lasted a little longer than ten years. Now there are a few reasons for the splurge, and even though it’s unjustifiable it’s not completely crazy. It’s my last year in grad school. It’s relatively close by. It was going to be during spring break.

The most important reason I am excited about this show, that I am so invested in this show, is the concept itself. Def Lep are going to play Hysteria all the way through, plus some additional tunes “from their back catalog.” The concept is great because it overturns so much of how stadium rock shows go. Just to start, the hits will not be accumulated at the end. How often will I get to go to a Def Lep show and Pour Some Sugar On Me will not be the focus of the whole thing? It’ll be fifth of at least twelve songs. When was the last time they played Love and Affection live? In addition, knowing a major portion of the set list in advance gives me time to prepare emotionally, to listen to it through, to get excited about certain moments which will definitely be coming in the show.

For the next six weeks I’m going to write a blog post about each song on the Hysteria album. It’ll give me a chance to brush up on lyrics, and to have a sense of how the album really runs in its entirety. I’m super excited. I hope by the time I make it to Vegas I’ll be completely immersed in Hysteria. It’ll be great.

And, yes, I already have a playlist of all live versions of Hysteria. It’s never a bad time to rock out.

Piano Bar Theology

One of the great things about studying theology, which I have been doing for the past three years, is learning new narratives. I have read new story lines, new plot arcs which I’d never read before. It also has encouraged me to think of my own plot arcs in different ways. I am learning how to tease-out different strands of thought which previously seemed one. This is helping me re-define my self-understanding as a musician.

I have recently reading about theology of the multitude – theology of the 99% instead of theology of the 1%. In doing so it has occurred to me that when I used to wrestle with what music is “good” or “worth while” or “worth my time” I was really combining two very different priorities and sets of arguments. The first set of arguments is about musical complexity and technical difficulty. I used to wrack my brain to try to find different ways of understanding the music I loved (rock music) such that it could be raised up alongside classical music and jazz music, two very developed forms in terms of complexity and difficulty. I used to have arguments with my mother about this, trying to “win” this side of the argument. (Warning: if you’re arguing with your mother about art, recognize that the argument is probably not about what you think it is about.) I was trying to justify my love for one kind of music using the analysis tools of an entirely different genre and agenda.

The second set of arguments are social arguments. The arguments here are around what music can “make a difference,” and what the purpose of music is in general. When I was a freshman in college the president of the conservatory I attended said something to the effect of “we’re saving this music for when the public realizes they need it.” Even then such an argument struck me as arrogant, but I didn’t know how to engage it in conversation. I longed to be playing music which made people happy, which brought them into the moment, which made a connection between me and the listeners. The answer was always “be a better pianist.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Balance

When I was a first year student at music school I was entranced by many different kinds of music. I was nominally there to study jazz music, but I also took lessons from a classical piano teacher. I listened to a lot of jazz, but also the Violent Femmes, the Gin Blossoms, and above all, the Beatles. I wrestled deeply with the conflict between liking rock music but thinking that it was a lower form of music, not worth my time or talent. This idea was planted early in my musical life by my first, and beloved, piano teacher. As I quickly progressed and moved from playing just rock to primarily focusing on jazz and classical piano, he told me that rock music (or, really, any music other than jazz and classical) was base, that it was less-than, and that any musician worth his or her salt would have nothing to do with it. I none the less played in a rock band as a high school student, and continued to enjoy many different kinds of music.

I’ve been on a musical hiatus for about three years now, and am starting to come out from under my shell. I knew I needed time off: I was burned out, I was phoning in my organ playing at church, and I didn’t care at all about my piano chops. I dedicated myself to my studies at grad school, only told a few people in my new community that I was a musician, and in general put that part of my life on hold. In doing so I’ve gained a fresh perspective on my music, but also paid a steep price. While I am in a much better place and am ready to come back to my playing, these three years have been extremely unbalanced and my emotional life has suffered for lack of a creative element.

I struggled with why I was so willing to drop my experiences as a “refined” pianist for the base role as a piano bar entertainer. I struggled with why I wanted singing to be part of my work even though I am not a great singer. I struggled with ways I could argue for the “goodness” of rock music, with ways I could say that it is on the same plane as other kinds of music.

What I’ve discovered is that I was asking the wrong questions. What seems important to me now is not which is a “better” kind of music, but rather my own goals as a musician. And I find that my goals as a musician are to connect with people. This has always been my primary goal, that my music should be a connection between myself and the listener. But this was always obstructed by the academic questions, the “quality” questions, the “worthiness” questions. I have known this all along, but have been afraid to own it in any real way. My time away from the piano and in school has helped me to begin to own my own voice in ways I never was able to before.

So, now it seems I have arrived at a place of balance. Technical proficiency is still very important to me – I still value all those things my piano teachers taught me. But they must be in balance with the part of me which desires connection above all else. The form of art must serve the message. Jazz piano does not serve my message in the way rock / singer-songwriter music does. I’d rather be a really great piano bar entertainer than a half-ass, bitter jazz pianist in his room.

Absynth makes the heart grow fonder

What a long time since I’ve written here. Please go pour yourself a rum & coke and I will be back with you shortly.